When Kabir Ahmed Shakir first arrived inside the CFO office at Tata Communications, the former Microsoft India CFO quickly determined that there was one person above all others who held sway over the company’s maturing transformation plans.
“The person who is actually giving pricing to our customers needs to know how much cash we make on Year 1, Year 2, and Year 3,” explains Shakir, whose 2-year CFO tenure has spanned a period in which the company’s free cash flow has grown twentyfold.Read More
“We had to bring our ‘cash thinking’ down to the deal profitability level,” reports Shakir, whose choice of words at first makes it sound as though his finance team had become tasked with running an errand.
However, Shakir quickly clarifies the magnitude of what he was looking to achieve: “I wanted there to be an undying focus on cash. It’s not the most profitable companies that survive—it’s the liquid ones.”
While this is certainly an organizational mind-set that many CFOs eventually reach, not that many do so within a span of time comparable to that of Shakir’s short ascent. For those who succeed in implementing the emphasis, as he appears to have done, leadership style is often the key contributing factor.
Shakir, who spent 23 years climbing the finance career ladder at packaged goods giant Unilever, cites the scathing results of a 360-degree review that he once received as an aspiring future leader as the experience that most helped to shape his leadership skills: “It was the worst feedback of my life. Some of my friends even reported that I was a real pain to work with. They said, ‘When we come to you, you always have to show us how much smarter you are than all of the rest of us.’”
In truth, a chastened Shakir tell us, he was indeed “nosy” by nature and would at times second-guess the work of others. Even faced with such cutting feedback, though, and as “extremely difficult” Shakir found it to change, nevertheless, change did come.
“I have let go. And I now spend my time thinking, not doing, because that is what I’m paid to do,” observes Shakir, who says that Tata’s undying focus on cash took root with the help of many rather than just one.
Adds Shakir: “When I first walked into Tata Communications, I told my team that I knew nothing of telecommunications. I said, ‘Help me learn.’” –Jack Sweeney
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CFOTL: Tell us about what attracted you to Tata Communications and the new business chapter that you have helped the company to open …
Shakir: I think that what excited me was that we are currently in a transformational phase.
First, from a holding perspective, we had a 26% stake owned by the government, which was sold more than a year ago. Now, we’re majority-owned by the Tata Group, and we still have 42% retail investors. Tata moved from 48% to 58% when the government sold their stake. This was definitely a defining movement and inflection point in our history. We were also transforming from being a telecom-only player to playing a more meaningful role in the entire digital ecosystem.Read More
We were rebranding or reimagining ourselves and creating a new vision to be a digital ecosystem enabled, with a new idea and a new strategy and a new CEO who was probably just a few months into the company when I joined. All of this really excited me. All I was told by the CEO and the board was, “Look, we are in this transformation, and we need a leader to bring about this transition in the organization.” I’m not trying to be arrogant in saying that. What I actually say and mean is, “I’m not seeking a sense of achievement—I’m seeking a sense of fulfillment.” For me, it’s fulfilling when I’m able to partner with the CEO in transforming the business and in realizing the vision that he has for Tata Communications.
It’s all about transformation at all levels, and transformation starts from within. Our employees, our leadership, we all need to start believing that we are not selling just products but also platforms and solutions to bring value to our customers. We need to understand this and internalize it, as it not only changes the vocabulary that we use when we actually talk to our customers but also goes deep into the thinking that will generate innovations to come. The future will be guided by this thinking and this rationale. So, we’re very much into an internal cultural transformation.
Number two, from a financial angle, when we had the government as a shareholder, they didn’t want to invest, they didn’t want to divest, and they didn’t want to dilute, so there were restrictions and constraints on funding. With them having left the company, we have no such constraints, which is a real breath of fresh air.
“Be humble, curious, and flexible as you grow in your role and responsibilities. Speak your mind; say what no one else will. Be ambitious and take bold risks while empowering and enabling your teams to drive exceptional outcomes.” –Kabir Shakir, CFO, Tata Communications
Tata Communications | www.tatacommunications.com | Mumbai, India